Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed lawsuits against school districts that have defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting government entities, including public schools, from requiring indoor mask wearing.
Abbott on July 29, 2021, amended the first executive order he issued March 13, 2020, related to the state of emergency over the coronavirus. The July order supersedes previous orders and prohibits local governmental entities or officials from imposing mask mandates, among other prohibitions, including requiring vaccination or vaccine passports as terms of employment or to receive service. Failure to comply with the order carries a fine up to $1,000 per violation. “Even though face coverings cannot be mandated by any governmental entity, that does not prevent individuals from wearing one if they choose,” it adds.
Since the order went into effect, county judges and school districts sued, and their cases are progressing through the court system.
Paxton had warned school districts last month that the order was the law and he would enforce it.
According to his office, roughly 100 school districts are not in compliance with the order. The majority of noncompliant districts already received a letter from the AG's office stating that they are in noncompliance and must comply or face a lawsuit. In addition to the noncompliant schools and districts listed, 23 districts that were previously not in compliance are now in compliance, the AG’s office states.
Last week, Paxton's office announced that it had sued Richardson, Round Rock, Galveston, Elgin, Spring and Sherman independent school districts.
Paxton’s office says it also anticipates filing additional lawsuits if school districts and other governmental entities continue to defy the order.
“Not only are superintendents across Texas openly violating state law, but they are using district resources – that ought to be used for teacher merit raises or other educational benefits – to defend their unlawful political maneuvering,” Paxton said in a statement. “If districts choose to spend their money on legal fees, they must do so knowing that my office is ready and willing to litigate these cases. I have full confidence that the courts will side with the law – not acts of political defiance.”
Elgin ISD’s superintendent told NBC News that instead of following the governor’s order it "continues to comply with Travis County Judge Andy Brown's order requiring Travis County schools to implement a mask mandate for all individuals over the age of 2 while on school property and on District buses."
Elgin ISD falls primarily in northern Bastrop County, but also includes small areas of Lee and Travis counties.
In response to Abbott’s mask mandate, President Joe Biden issued a memorandum directing Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to "assess all available tools in taking action, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, to ensure that governors and other officials are taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school for our Nation's children, including not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations."
Referring to these actions, Biden said on Thursday that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) "has already begun to take legal action against states undermining protection that local school officials have ordered," according to The Hill.
OCR sent warnings to five states, saying it was opening investigations into whether their prohibitions “on universal indoor masking discriminate against students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 by preventing them from safely accessing in-person education.”
The five states include Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. OCR hasn’t opened investigations into the policies of Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, or Texas, which have all banned schools from requiring masking, “because those states’ bans on universal indoor masking are not currently being enforced as a result of court orders or other state actions.”
As the court cases progress, the department notes that it will “continue to closely monitor those states and is prepared to take action” if, and when, courts were to ultimately uphold the states’ prohibitions.